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Ana Maria Giulietti

Ana Maria Giulietti Harley: From flower to flower

Choosing to take the academic road less traveled, botanist Ana Maria Giulietti seeks new directions, new flora, and new initiatives to solidify research groups

Bel PedrosaAna Maria Giulietti, from the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, is known for her contributions as a professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) and the State University of Feira de Santana (UEFS). She has left her mark at both due to her curiosity and dedication, exploring new themes and helping to organize the institutions.

A few years ago, she visited the Amazon, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Her inexhaustible enthusiasm is now bearing fruit for the Vale Institute of Technology (ITV) in Belém. At the end of 2014, she led a partnership between the ITV and the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, with the Herculean task of cataloging and studying the plants of the Carajás mountain range in the state of Pará, which is expected to be completed in February 2018. The region, an island of low vegetation in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, is home to an abundance of unique and rare animal and plant species that are at risk due to mining activities and livestock farming.

“The biodiversity there is unique, wonderful, and spectacular,” she said in a lecture at the National Botany Conference in Rio de Janeiro, where she talked with Pesquisa FAPESP over lunch after a night of little sleep. She stayed up late putting the finishing touches on her presentation the night before, while waiting to watch a repeat broadcast of the Corinthians game (her favorite soccer team). Despite knowing that a goal had been scored in the last minute, she got so involved in her work that she missed it. She says that being a Corinthians fan is something she shares in common with her first husband, from whom she separated when she moved to Feira de Santana. Their three children are the other permanent connection between them. She is currently married to British botanist Ray Harley.

Undeterred by a serious hearing problem, Ana looked like a celebrity at the conference. It is difficult to resist citing her favorite plant as a metaphor: the Eriocaulaceae, popularly known in Portuguese as the sempre-viva (always alive).

Field of expertise
Undergraduate degree in natural history (1967) from Faculdade Frassinetti Do Recife, master’s degree (1970) and doctorate (1978) from the University Of São Paulo
University Of São Paulo (1975–1996), State University Of Feira De Santana (1996–present), Vale Institute Of Technology (2014–present)
Scientific publications
250 articles and book chapters, 14 books, as well as advising and coadvising master’s and doctorates, and supervising post-doctorates

You have worked in many places over the course of your career. What motivates you to move around so much?
I am from the Northeast, from the state of Pernambuco. I was born in Pesqueira, in the middle of the Caatinga region, and ended up in São Paulo. But I always said that I wanted to go back to the Northeast, to return to my roots.

Why did you go to Feira de Santana, and not Recife?
In Recife, everything had already been done, I would have been just another face in the crowd, and I wanted to show that it was possible to start something from scratch. One day, when I was still at USP, I was told about a position at UEFS in the field of angiosperm taxonomy, with an emphasis on monocotyledons. When I heard about it, I thought it was a sign: this is my exact field. I got home and told my husband and children: “I’m going to apply for this position.” One of them said to me, “Mom, it’s for an assistant professor.” I responded: “So, what’s the problem? I’m retiring from USP, I can do this.” The next morning I was in the lab and the phone rang. It was Fábio França, coordinator of the UEFS botanical department, inviting me to join their team. I had to refuse, because I wanted to apply fairly through the proper channels, unless there was a substitute professor for whom the vacancy was already intended. If they really wanted a restless old lady, I would be happy to go. But first, I proposed a visit to explain what I wanted to do, and if it was not viable, I would not apply. When I arrived, there were a lot of people waiting for me. Right away, the dean wanted to talk about creating a master’s course, but I explained that with only one doctor on the staff, it would not be possible. I knew that the professors there had master’s degrees; I had seen all of their résumés. I did the application test and failed to score 10/10. I got 9.9 for my résumé, because I did not include summaries of my conference presentations. For everything else, I scored 10. My ex-husband, who worked at the Institute of Agricultural Economics for the São Paulo Department of Agriculture, did not want to move to Feira de Santana, and decided not to go. My youngest daughter was already 21 years old—all three of my children were in college—so I told them, “I’m going.” And I went.

Was creating the course your main objective?
Very much so. I studied natural history at Faculdade Frassinetti do Recife. My friends working in research said, “You work at USP, you can do anything! Come and see the problems we face.” I always said that when I retire, I would show them that it is possible to do good quality research anywhere, as long as you are willing.

So you retired at USP and then wanted to show people that it is possible to do good work at Feira de Santana?
I had the advantage of knowing a lot of people, knowing the way things work and when things may or may not be viable. I was also lucky that the UEFS dean, Anaci Paim, was delighted at the idea of me working there. The governor of Bahia had declared higher education improvements as a state priority, which included offering full-time positions to visiting professors with doctorates. I was the first doctor to work in the UEFS botany department, which previously only had post-graduates with master’s degrees and other specialist diplomas. So, we drew up a five-year training plan for everyone to study a doctorate. I told several professors from USP that I would welcome them to UEFS after they pass the selection process. The plan was to set up our own master’s course within five years, and a doctorate within seven. I arrived in February of 1996; in March 2000, we implemented the master’s course, and in March 2002, the doctorate. Now, the Botany course at Feira de Santana has been rated as a level 5 course by CAPES.

Eriocaulaceae: Paepalanthus speciosus

You were there for almost 20 years?
In 2008, I decided to leave, to take care of my mother. She was almost 90 years old and had diabetes. I wanted to live in Salvador, and it was very difficult to commute such a long distance every day. In the years prior, I was dean of research and graduate studies—it was exhausting. I was going to resign, but since I was over 60 and had worked there for more than 12 years, I was advised to apply for partial retirement, while continuing to work at the institution. I stopped teaching undergraduates, because I was already having problems with my hearing, which makes teaching difficult. I need another person with me at all times and I can barely interact with the students because of my poor hearing. I continued teaching very small graduate classes, and I still have two doctoral students. But in August 2014, Vera Lúcia Imperatriz Fonseca, a biologist from USP, called me and told me she was working at the ITV. The institution wanted to form a partnership with the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi to study the flora in the Carajás mountains. She mentioned some key words to me: The Amazon, and rupestrian grasslands! A week later, I went to talk to them, and I telephoned Ricardo Secco, from Museu Goeldi. “Let’s get everyone together and come to an agreement.” When I arrived, everyone was there and I told them that if they signed the agreement to work together in the Carajás, I would go to Belém with them. We drafted a document with targets that everyone said would be impossible to achieve. The ITV said that it would give me everything I needed, all I had to do was work. It was an intense three years. Sometimes we spent 10 to 15 days in the field per month. Sometimes even 20. It was important to me that my husband, Ray Harley, could accompany me. He is a botanist, too, and he climbs mountains with even more vigor than I do, despite being 10 years older.

He is English, isn’t he?
Yes. I have known him since 1968, when he came to Xavantina, Mato Grosso, as part of a Royal Society expedition. I was studying part of my master’s degree at the University of Brasília with Graziela Maciel Barroso. She was invited to visit their camp and I joined her. That is where I met Ray, and we have been friends ever since. He was married, then separated and remarried, while I also married and had children. Over the years, USP participated in several joint projects with the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, where he worked. One year after I started at UEFS, he retired, received a scholarship to work in Bahia, and decided to live in Feira de Santana. We were both single. 30 years after we met, we started dating, but we were not thinking about marriage. We bought a house together in Rio de Contas, in the south of Chapada Diamantina, Bahia. We split it 50/50—it was not meant to be as a couple. But then, during an excursion, I was stung in the face by a swarm of bees. My face was so swollen that the doctor ordered a radiography, and by chance discovered that I have Paget disease, a metabolic disorder where calcium is taken from the bones and deposited elsewhere. It is an incurable genetic disease that in my case has damaged my hearing, because of the changing bone formations in my skull. It is most common in the Netherlands and in the north of England; almost nobody in Brazil had heard of it. I did some research on the Internet and found a specialist doctor in Recife called Francisco Bandeira. He studied a post-doctorate in metabolism in Oxford, England, the very country where the incidence of this disease is greatest. When he returned to Recife, he realized that several patients he had been treating for arthrosis actually had Paget, which he attributed to the history of Dutch immigration to the region. I went to Recife and underwent what is known as shock treatment. I was hospitalized and medicated for two weeks. I then stayed with my parents, who still lived there. Ray was in England and called as soon as I left the hospital. After talking to me, he spoke to my father and asked for my hand in marriage. I was surprised—this was not part of our plan. But he had found a Paget’s Association in England, and if we were married, I would have access to better treatment. “I like you,” he said. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you, I want to marry you.” Three months later, we got married in England. I cannot speak badly of the disease; it was the reason that I married my second husband. We have been married for 17 years now.

Going back to research: large projects that involve many people—like this ITV project—often promote personal development and training. Is this important to you?
Yes. I have always valued the development of human resources. I think I have mentored over 100 students that are today working in various regions of the country and even abroad; I am very proud of them. The ITV joined the CNPq [Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development] to offer 50 research grants. Last year, the institute developed a postdoctoral program with CAPES [the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education], also using the public-private partnership model. As part of a master’s in sustainable development, I teach classes on endangered, endemic, and rare species, as well as the laws that control their occurrence in areas where natural resources are being exploited. Plants from the Carajás first started to be collected after mining activities were authorized in the area in the 1970s, and in 2015 the collection grew from about 300 known species to more than a thousand. When completed, the vegetation on the rocky iron outcrops known as cangas will represent more than 10% of the flora registered for the entire state of Pará. This fact certainly does not reflect the true diversity of Pará, where there is still so much about the flora that we do not know, and many gaps to be filled. The question of whether sustainable development can be compatible with the exploitation of natural resources really drives me. And there are other questions: can the canga ecoregion really be described as rupestrian grassland? What adaptations have occurred there? These are not just practical questions, but academic questions too.

Do you not know the answers?
No, there are no answers yet. There was a round table discussion on rupestrian grasslands here at the conference; I told Pirani [José Rubens Pirani, a professor at USP] that the issues they were discussing were the same ones we talked about 30 years ago when he was my first scientific research student. It took all this time for us to begin to understand the flora, its origins, and how rupestrian grasslands can exist in the state of Minas, separate from Bahia. The genera are more or less the same, but with a different diversity, and the species are different. We know that the Espinhaço mountains, which run through Minas and Bahia, have existed since the Cretaceous period, as have the Carajás, and that the vegetation at the summits has been there since the Tertiary period. The more we know, the easier it is to conserve what needs to be conserved. It is not possible to preserve all populations, but some must be maintained so as not to cause the extinction of species.


What did you find most interesting about the Carajás?
The data available. The Carajás mountains have risen and fallen over geological time, creating a flexibility on the surface that forms a wide range of ecosystems. It has a system of lakes. The plants in the permanent lakes are different to those found in the temporary lakes; they must have distinct evolutionary origins. It is very complex and it is isolated, like an island in the middle of an impenetrable forest. Many of the species probably originated through local speciation. We are conducting studies and trying to figure it all out.

Did the research lead to any other major discoveries?
One day, Rodolfo Jaffé [a biologist and researcher at the ITV] brought in some strange roots, asking what they were. “They are from the cave; they look like a clump of hair,” he said. I told him to arrange an excursion, and we went to take a look. The entrance to the cave is very small, you have to crawl to get in. There was bat guano [feces] all around the entrance and I fell right in the middle of it. The cave is incredible though, and these kinds of roots only occur when water percolates through the rock and hits them as they run parallel to the ground. We collected samples and studied them under a microscope—they definitely had a root structure. So we extracted DNA and compared it against a database, and we were able to identify the genus, even the species for one of them. They were from different plants, all dicotyledons. It was spectacular; we are publishing the findings now.

Have you studied the flora of other biomes?
I started with the Caatinga region at the Agronomic Research Institute in Recife, under the guidance of Dárdano de Andrade-Lima. Later, when I moved to São Paulo, I started studying rupestrian grasslands in the Cipó mountains and in the northern part of the Espinhaço range. When I moved to Bahia, one of the attractions was the Chapada Diamantina mountains, a region I studied while I was at Feira de Santana, as well as working in the Caatinga again. At that time, my focus was semi-arid ecosystems. When the São Francisco river transfer was announced, the government asked the Millennium Institute to bid on the project. Our five-year proposal was accepted. The project involved more than 20 institutions in the Northeast of Brazil and much of the UEFS research infrastructure.

PERSONAL ARCHIVE Fieldwork in Mucugê, Bahia, 1980: Countess Beatrix Orssich, Raymond Harley, Nanuza Luiza de Menezes, Pat Brennan (back, from left to right); the driver, Ana Giulietti, Graça Sajo, Maria Mercedes Arbo, and João Semir (front)PERSONAL ARCHIVE

Is the research conducted by the Millennium Institute still producing results?
Yes. We bought the first plant sequencer in the Northeast, a scanning electron microscope, and the Millennium network’s research became a point of reference for the region. Many people claimed that the Caatinga flora was weak and almost completely degraded, and we proved that this is not true. We made the first list of Brazilian semi-arid species, including all types of vegetation, which was one of the sources for the Brazilian flora list, completed in 2010. The transition from the vegetation of the Caatinga to the altitude of the Cerrado and the rupestrian grasslands—between 1,000 and 2,000 meters above sea level—is incredible.

How important is it to learn about the flora?
Studying the data available in public databases and using it to create models, for example, is an important activity. But the key is to do so in a way that fills all the gaps in our knowledge. When we finish the authenticated Carajás database, it will be the most complete data set in Brazil. There are 16,000–20,000 records from the same area that can be used for modeling and studying the distribution of species, relationships with climate change, minimum areas for conservation, and more. The studies in the Carajás mountains, within part of the Amazon rainforest, can be seen as a reference for how to begin filling knowledge gaps regarding the flora of this region. It can also answer some of the questions that I have had for so long, as well as new ones, such as: is the flora of the Carajás canga similar to that of cangas in other regions in Brazil? What are the main speciation mechanisms of endemic canga species? How could the long geological history of the Carajás mountains and the climatic fluctuations of the Quaternary period have stimulated this speciation?

How has the way you work changed over the years? Today, it is possible to integrate ecology, modeling, genetic sequencing. Has it changed the way you work and the questions you ask?
I have always enjoyed working with specialists from various fields. At Feira de Santana, for example, because of the Millennium Institute, we had a good relationship with many phytochemistry and pharmacology researchers. Some of the material collected went to the UEFS herbarium, and some was sent to the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), where the most promising substances were screened for diseases typical to semi-arid environments, such as schistosomiasis and Chagas disease. The most detailed chemistry analyses were performed at UFBA and the Federal University of Paraíba [UFPB]. At FIOCRUZ [The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation], scientists conducted in vitro tests on the most promising substances, to then continue with further studies. At the ITV, these institutions do not work separately, they use contiguous workbenches in the same labs. I can talk to colleagues, exchange ideas, and decide to test or model a substance together with them. We do fieldwork together. This close working relationship is new to me. I have all the equipment and resources I need, including the Museu Goeldi herbarium and all of its researchers. I go to sleep at night, wake up with an idea, and put it straight into practice. There are people who do not like this kind of working environment—they complain about the noise. But for me this is not a problem: I just take out my hearing aid and concentrate on what I am doing.

You recently received an award from the Botanical Society of America. What do awards like this mean to you, at a time when you are so focused on advancing scientific research?
I was made a “Corresponding Member” of the Botanical Society of America, giving me full lifetime membership of the society, including receiving all editions of the American Journal of Botany. It is an important recognition. In 2013, I was awarded the José Cuatrecasas Medal for Excellence in Tropical Botany by the Smithsonian Institution, and I think that honor contributed to my selection for this most recent award. It is difficult to gain that kind of recognition as a taxonomist—research these days is more heavily focused on genetics. I think in both cases they wanted to reward the progress we have made in systematics in Brazil. That is why I paid homage to all my students, past and present, and to those who advised them: my scientific children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. Even in those great-grandchildren, I still feel my teaching legacy. So I think these awards were more about my work in general, which is reflected all over the country and abroad, rather than anything I have published in a major journal. The impact as a whole is much more important to Brazil.

JOÃO MARCOS ROSA Studying flora collected from the Carajás in the herbarium with technician Lourival TiskyJOÃO MARCOS ROSA

And after all this, is the Eriocaulaceae still your favorite plant?
It is, but it was not my own choice. When I was in Recife, I decided to study a Eriocaulaceae flower, but it was very complex, I did not understand anything, and I gave up. Meanwhile, Aylthon Brandão Joly (1924–1975), Brazil’s greatest ever algae specialist, decided to dedicate himself to higher plants (since almost no one studied them in São Paulo) and began surveying the flora in the Cipó mountain range. I had finished my master’s degree at USP and returned to Recife to work at the Agronomic Institute of Pernambuco, where I had done my scientific research training. But my husband did not want to stay, and we ended up returning to São Paulo. I contacted Aylthon about getting a FAPESP scholarship to study a doctorate. I wanted to review the Byrsonima genus, which I worked on during my master’s degree, but he had something else in mind: to receive the scholarship, I would have to study the Eriocaulaceae from the Cipó mountains. “They are very beautiful,” he told me. “And very complex too,” I replied. “That’s why I’m telling you to study them.”

And then you continued studying them afterwards?
Yes. I think we all fall in love with things that we study so intensely. Especially if it is hard work. Nanuza worked with Velloziaceae, and Walquíria Monteiro worked on Eriocaulaceae anatomy. We went to the Cipó mountains with some of our students, including Marlies and Ivan Sazima, and João Semir. They later joined Aylthon Joly at UNICAMP where he was forming a new department. He wanted me to go too, but my husband had a job in São Paulo, and who would stay at USP to teach angiosperm taxonomy if I moved to Campinas? But we went to the Cipó mountains with Aylthon before he retired from USP in April, and I noticed he seemed to have a bad cough. It was raining a lot, so he stayed at the hotel to make a key for identifying the families of the Cipó flora without using their flowers. In the evening, he showed us his work; it was a highly valuable document. We returned to São Paulo and he was still coughing. He died later that year of lung cancer. I continued my doctorate under the supervision of Carlos Bicudo, a specialist in freshwater algae, and decided to continue working on Aylthon Joly’s dream in the Cipó mountains. Our knowledge quickly grew, and the region became a national park. The work we did at USP always had a greater objective, and we always wanted to pass our knowledge on to the students.

But your situation today is not far from that dream.
I still feel like I am a part of it at USP, Feira de Santana, the Amazon, and the ITV. In all these places, I planted a seed: my friends, my children, my loves. I am from Brazil—I never considered living abroad, despite having family all over the world. My eldest daughter lives in Brasília, my second daughter married a Spaniard and lives in Seville, and the third married a Scotsman and lives in Munich. The eldest of Ray’s children lives in France, and the other lives in England. Between us, we have 10 grandchildren. I consider his grandchildren as my own. I love being a grandmother, giving my grandchildren gifts, spending time with them. That is why I want to reduce my commitments next year—when I commit to something, I do not like to leave it half finished. At the ITV, there are several people who can continue my work. It was the same at USP and Feira de Santana. I have to be able to realize when I am no longer contributing as I used to, and leave room for others to grow.